Farmers also sell to the co-op’s cafe. On most days, the three chefs buy food just like any other customer and turn it into homey, delicious dishes such as leek-and-feta quiche or a curried cauliflower, apple and arugula pesto sandwich on locally made bread. Producers also sell the cafe their excess produce, the stuff that won’t sit another week on the shelves. The cooks prep and freeze it or use it for soups and sauces.
The setup has been a boon to farmers. Marion Yoder, who sells pastured meats, cheese and homemade bagels, says the co-op helps keep her business running all year, with no need for customers to drive out to the farm after the farmers markets close for the season. (She is now selling about half of her meat through Local Roots.) Shoppers benefit, too, because the co-op makes it convenient to source most of their food locally. “It’s as easy as the grocery store,” says Trevor Dunlap, the head of a local nonprofit group, who stopped in to pick up some grass-fed milk and butter on his lunch hour.
There has been much to learn, of course. Jessica Eikleberry, the co-op’s market manager, has had to coach producers about what they can reasonably expect to sell in a given week. Last summer, she remembers, “every single grower in the tri-county area brought in tomatoes, until half the building was full of them.” The next week, the co-op printed tomato recipe cards and organized cooking demonstrations. But most farmers didn’t bother to bring any. Farmers are now required to rent shelf space for a month at a time, so the co-op knows how much produce to expect each week.
Local Roots’ success has garnered the group much attention locally. Co-founder Betsy Anderson says she is consulting with five groups from other parts of Ohio about how to get similar co-ops up and running.
And the idea is spreading. Bob Filbrun, an agricultural extension agent in Edgecombe County, N.C., about an hour east of Raleigh, visited Local Roots for inspiration on how to re-energize his own community’s struggling market. Its model addressed many of the challenges he’d been hearing about from customers and producers in his area. But just as important was the market’s vibe: “It was such a nice mix of products and presentation and atmosphere,” he said. “I don’t mean to get too philosophical about it. But if a farmers market is done right, it can be the heartbeat of the community.”
Indeed, that is the aim of Local Roots. Each month, the co-op puts on special events, such as December’s artisan crafts day and a knitting circle. But at its core is a new way of buying and selling food. Or as Marlene Barkheimer, Local Roots’ treasurer, says with a laugh, “finding a way to make it work for the farmer and the lazy shopper — like me.”
Black, a former Food section staffer now based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.